By Thomas Hauser
Craig Hamilton is a Jesse Ventura look-alike. Strong, barrel-chested, fifty-three years old, with a clean-shaven head and deep booming voice. He's also one of the most knowledgeable and honest men in a business not known for candor. He's a boxing memorabilia dealer.
Hamilton was born and raised on Long Island. His parents worked for Grumman Aircraft. His sister was the second policewoman in the history of Suffolk County. Hamilton has taught high school history; worked as a laborer for the Long Island Lighting Company; was an investigator for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services; loaded and unloaded trucks; put in time as a claims adjuster for an insurance company; and been a partner in a real estate venture that purchased land for subdivision and the construction of new homes. He's now one of the world's foremost experts on boxing memorabilia.
Hamilton's interest in boxing began when he was young. His uncle, Frankie Ryan, was a welterweight who peaked in the 1920s and beat some highly-regarded fighters, including Jimmy Duffy and Phil "KO" Kaplan. Ryan was also a heavy drinker who lived the fast life. After retiring from boxing, he was working for the New York Herald when a ream of paper fell on him and crushed his chest. A subsequent stroke left him bedridden for life.
"I visited my uncle as often as I could," Hamilton remembers. "He told me of the great days of boxing and how he rode the rails from town to town. He claimed to have met Jack Dempsey when Dempsey was doing the same thing. My uncle was the person responsible for my taking up collecting. It started with his stuff; a few photos and a press release. Then I got into saving newspaper write-ups of fights, photos of different fighters, and boxing cards. Things mushroomed from there."
Hamilton now has what he considers to be one of the world's two best collections of boxing memorabilia. Stanley Weston, who owned Ring Magazine and died in 2002, amassed the other. "Weston had a fabulous collection of fight-worn gloves," Hamilton acknowledges. "Auctioned off side-by-side, I'd say that our collections would bring in comparable dollars. Put them together and you'd have Nirvanah."
The strength of Hamilton's collection is in its diversity. He owns championship belts and trophies that belonged to James Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Willie Pep, Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sandy Saddler, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali. He also has robes, trunks, and gloves worn by Ali, Emile Griffith, Salvador Sanchez, Alexis Arguello, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Roberto Duran. The "paper" items in his collection include on-site posters for Clay-Liston I, Ali-Foreman, and Ali-Frazier I, II and III.
Hamilton has also assembled a library of two thousand books on boxing with titles that date to the sixteenth century.
"I've been collecting boxing books since I was a kid," he acknowledges. "Some of the favorites from my collection are Pancratia by William Oxberry and Boxiana by Pierce Egan, which is a boxed set in the original boards. I wouldn't claim that I have the best boxing library in the world, since I don't know what other collectors have. But it's a serious collection with a lot of rare titles, many of them in very fine condition. Boxing, in my opinion, has the finest written history of any sport, and I value my books above all of my other possessions."
In 1993, Hamilton founded JO Sports. Initially, the company was a vehicle for his own collecting. He bought as he chose, kept what he wanted, and sold off the rest. Now JO Sports is his primary business and occupies roughly seventy percent of his working time. He's also frequently retained by Sotheby's, Christie's, and other auction houses to document and authenticate boxing memorabilia prior to auction.
The past two decades have seen an explosion in the sports memorabilia market. In the late 1970s, a buyer who chose wisely might have been able to purchase a letter written by Jake Killrain for five or ten dollars. Now, that same letter sells for $3,000. The most valuable fighter's signature today is that of Marvin Hart, who reigned briefly as heavyweight champion in 1905. Once, Hart's signature was of minimal value. Now, because of its scarcity, a well-documented Hart signature in good condition can be sold for up to $10,000.
Hamilton himself purchased the belt that Sugar Ray Robinson was awarded by Ring Magazine when he beat Tommy Bell for his first world title. "It's probably the most significant piece I have," he notes. "I bought it from Ray's widow, Millie, for $35,000. My guess is that it's now worth about $100,000, although Joe Louis's Ring Magazine belt is more valuable."
"James Corbett's gloves from his fight against John L. Sullivan sold for $60,000," Hamilton continues. "Ali's gloves from his first fight against Henry Cooper sold at auction for a bit more when the commission was added. That's the highest price for a pair of gloves that I'm aware of, although the right Ali gloves would go higher. Ali's trunks from the first Frazier fight brought a record $100,000, and his robe from Zaire was auctioned off for $160,000."
As for "paper" products; the most valuable fight poster that Hamilton is aware of is the on-site poster for Louis-Schmeling II. Depending on condition, it sells for $15,000 to $25,000. An uncut ticket for John L. Sullivan versus Jake Killrain goes for about $10,000. "Uncut tickets for Clay-Liston I are up there with Sullivan-Killrain," Hamilton explains. "But the problem with paper is, you never know what might show up. With a robe or a trophy, there's only one. But someone could be rummaging through a file cabinet and stumble across a whole stack of Clay-Liston tickets tomorrow."
And to prove his point, Hamilton recounts acquiring four on-site programs for John L. Sullivan versus James Corbett. "Guys who had collected fight programs for years didn't even know that a Sullivan-Corbett program existed until I found them," he says. Then he adds, "No Sullivan-Corbett poster is known to exist, but I have to think that there were some."
Meanwhile, Hamilton observes, "There's a whole new group of collectors today who have very little knowledge of boxing history and very little interest in it. They care about Muhammad Ali and no one else. When a good Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis item is available, two or three people might bid on it. With Ali, it's ten or twenty. Mike Tyson has a good fan base. No other active fighter sells at numbers close to Tyson, but his base isn't nearly as deep as Ali's."
Hamilton considers the championship belt presented to Cassius Clay by Ring Magazine for defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 to be the Holy Grail for boxing collectors. He has seen photographs of it, but doesn't know of anyone who claims knowledge of its whereabouts. "Many people think that Bundini [a member of Ali's entourage] sold it," he elaborates. "But no one really knows. I'd value the belt at a minimum of $250,000 and wouldn't be surprised if it brought a million dollars or more at auction. It would be an incredible find."
Hamilton's enthusiasm for collecting remains strong; although in recent years, it has diminished slightly as the result of a problem that plagues the entire sports collectibles industry.
"There's a ton of phony merchandise out there," he acknowledges. "Most of it is bad autographs. Ebay is the area of prime offense. It's the cesspool of sports collectibles. The listings on Ebay simply aren't screened sufficiently, so it's a true place for the buyer to beware. The bad material on Ebay flows like a rancid tide, and I've never seen it worse than it is today. A real Rocky Marciano autographed photo is worth eight hundred to a thousand dollars, but you see them on Ebay all the time for a hundred dollars. Marciano died in 1969. Buy one on Ebay, take it out of the frame, and it might be printed on paper that was manufactured in the 1990s."
"But it's not just Ebay," Hamilton continues. "A major auction house had an auction in 2003 that included a pair of boxing gloves that Joe Frazier supposedly wore for sparring while he was training for the first Ali fight. The first Ali-Frazier fight was in 1971. I know for a fact that the gloves were made after 1981 because of the design of the Everlast label on them. There was another glove in the same auction that Frazier supposedly wore in his fight against Jimmy Ellis. But if you look at photos of that fight, the glove is the wrong color. I hate stuff like that"
In retrospect, it was inevitable that Hamilton's love of boxing would lead him to become more directly involved with the sweet science. Thus, in addition to collecting, he has served in the past as a management advisor for heavyweights Michael Grant and Gerald Nobles.
"Michael was my first fighter," Hamilton recounts. "I came to know him in 1994 through Don Turner, who was his trainer at the time. Don wanted me to get involved but I didn't know enough about managing, so I took Michael to Bill Cayton. Bill, Steve Lott, and I formed a partnership. And although there came a time when we went separate ways, almost everything I know about managing I learned during the three years that Michael was with Bill, Steve, and myself. Say what you will about Bill Cayton; he knew how to manage a fighter. Everything he did was in the best interest of the fighter, and that's true of Steve too. Every time we had an issue, their approach was to ask the question, 'What's in the best interest of the fighter?' There might be disagreements as to the answer. But if you answer that question as honestly as you can, you'll make the right decision far more often than not."
Hamilton guided Grant to a multi-fight HBO contract and a multi-million-dollar payday against Lennox Lewis. He stayed with him through the transition from Don Turner to Teddy Atlas as the fighter's trainer and losses against Lewis, Jameel McCline, and Dominick Guinn. They parted ways in February 2004 because of what Hamilton felt was Michael's lack of gratitude and, more significantly, the lack of a serious commitment to boxing. Grant hasn't fought since, but the people who saw Hamilton do his job up close express their admiration for him.
"Craig is the absolute best," says Turner. "He's a stand-up guy who knows boxing and always, always, does what he thinks is best for the fighter. He's one of the finest people I've ever met in or out of boxing."
Atlas, who replaced Turner in late 2000, is equally complimentary. "I have a resistance to getting close to people," Atlas acknowledges, "and particularly to people in boxing. You give and you get involved and you trust; and then usually you're disappointed. But after Michael lost to Jameel McCline, I saw what Craig was about. I got to know him under the worst kind of disappointment and pressure. And under those difficult circumstances, Craig was a quality guy. He didn't panic. He didn't go looking for someone else to blame. He didn't just protect himself, run for cover, and leave his fighter out there alone. He kept his optimism but, at the same time, he was realistic and understanding. So I have a lot of respect for Craig. I like to see how people react when they're under fire and things are tough; not when they're on top of the world. And when things were tough, Craig faced up to what had happened and did what had to be done."
Meanwhile, Jim Thomas, who is still Grant's attorney, says simply, "Craig is one of those guys who restores your faith in the belief that there are some good people in the business of boxing."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.